Work begins in wake of Wabush mine idling

From mortgages to morale, all levels of government active in response

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on February 22, 2014
The week after Cliffs Natural Resources announced its Wabush Mines operation would be idled, government officials are responding to the needs of affected employees. — TC Media file photo

When Cliffs Natural Res-ources announced it was idling its iron ore mine in Wabush, the town spoke in support of workers and a wave of provincial government ministers hit the area.

More than a week later, the meat of the  response is just getting underway.

“At this point, everything is still unfolding. The impact (of the idling) hasn’t really hit yet because most of the employees are still receiving pay cheques for the next little period,” Wabush Mayor Colin Vardy told The Telegram Friday.

The town council has done the things expected when a community’s main employer issues a massive layoff and all but halts business in the area, namely meeting after meeting to seek supports.

The town has also tried to keep up morale.

“We’re opening up our rec centre and our arena to try to get people out, to take their minds off of what’s unfolding here and to relieve some of the stress,” Vardy said, noting miners with children are starting to get questions from their kids about why they are home, when they would otherwise have been at work.

The town is arranging for a special session with credit counsellors for questions on mortgages, loan options and what happens when someone can no longer make payments.

“Coming this Tuesday, we’re speaking with the dean of industrial training at the College of the North Atlantic, to look at options for block training or courses that could be offered here locally to help people build up their resume or advance themselves with their education,” Vardy said.

Extra staff from the College are expected in Wabush next week.

“We’ve been in regular contact with the union. A lot of the issues people are facing right now are contract based.

“As a town, it’s really hard for us to get directly involved in that, but we’re supporting the union every which way that we can.”

The details still being negotiated between the company and the United Steelworkers Union Local 6285 are complicated by Wabush being a longtime company town.

“There are approximately 120 families who have mortgaged housing through the company and we want to make sure these families have the opportunity, if they find employment elsewhere, to be able to buy out their homes and own them through another financial arrangement,” said Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, following meetings in Labrador West this week.

“What the company has said at this stage, is anyone who has been there for 10 years will have that option. 

“People who have been there for less than 10 years will be looked at, I guess, on an individual basis.

“What I really want to stress is that the right thing to do for the company, if they are going to walk away and look at selling their operation there, the very least they could do is offer employees that have that housing the option to own it.”

It was an issue discussed in a meeting between the MP and company representatives, along with: severance practices, bridging programs for long-term workers and potential effect on retirees.

“It’s a tremendous amount of instability in people’s lives right now, but they’re just taking it one day at a time and working through it,” Jones said.

She said she feels appropriate steps have been taken by the provincial government to date, notably in terms of developing worker training options.

Training will be important for some workers but, she noted, many of the unemployed are journeyperson tradespeople and experienced skilled labourers.

“These are not people that aren’t going to be employable. They’re going to be very employable,” she said.

And so she has written every mining company in the area, asking they prioritize hiring of skilled workers from Wabush so they can remain employed in the region.

IOC has committed to 50 to 60 hires in short order.

The potential start to a new iron ore mine at Alderon’s Kami project site, closer to Labrador City, with its promise of 500 long-term jobs, is a hope on the horizon.

However, its startup is currently scheduled for late 2015 — too far off to address immediate needs of workers displaced by the idling of the mine in Wabush.

And the indirect effects are ready to hit.

The provincial Department of Advanced Education and Skills has started on the creation of a skills assessment inventory, including mine workers, but also any other workers being affected by the fallout from the mine’s idling, through the employment centre at 4 Grenfell Drive.

“Followup meetings with Cliffs (Natural Resources) and the union are being planned to be organized for next week to get all the data needed for inventory,” stated a spokesman for Advanced Education and Skills in response to questions.

The province sent representatives to joint sessions held for workers by Service Canada and Cliffs Natural Resources.

The province’s own information sessions in the coming weeks, expected to begin in the week ahead. Details will be available through the Wabush employment centre.